Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Shakespeare Canon

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This essay revisits one of the oldest topics of Shakespeare criticism: the relation between Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the plays. From Charles Gildon forward, critics see the narrative poems as a “promise” of the plays. This critical template, however, puts history backward: Venus and Lucrece become linear promises of an art that does not exist. The critical template also endorses the faulty paradigm underwriting Shakespeare criticism: the poems are the product of a “man of the theater.” William Shakespeare was a man of the theater, but he was also a print poet who saw five poems published during his lifetime: Venus (1593), Lucrece (1594), “The Phoenix and Turtle” (1601), Sonnets (1609), and A Lover’s Complaint (1609). In particular, Venus and Lucrece invaluably record a fiction of their role in Shakespeare’s dramatic canon. In turn, the plays record a fiction of the performance of the printed poems. By revising the received wisdom, we may introduce a more accurate map of Shakespeare’s literary career. This map preserves the integrity of a developing Shakespeare canon of poems and plays, and it recognizes that the poems gesture to the plays and the plays to the poems. To support this argument, the essay features evidence from Shakespeare’s own canon fictions: intratextual moments in the poems and plays that record a narrative about the structure of his career. Yet other evidence emerges: from the narrative poems’ genre, minor epic; from a neglected canon topos emerging from antiquity, “great things and small”; from the poems’ reception history; and from both biography and bibliography. Venus and Lucrece are not simply commercially driven works produced in a youthful moment of dramatic inactivity; they are types of generic form and literary character in a remarkably structured canon on page and stage. As Shakespeare gets ready to retire, he presents his canon in Cymbeline in just this way. In the end, we may view Venus and Lucrece as integral to his dramatic career, at once fountains and foundations for comedy, history, tragedy, and romance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-433
Number of pages29
JournalStudies in Philology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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